BLOW - Blu-ray review

Does the movie make us care? Not really, which is the movie's basic problem.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Blow: Slang., cocaine." --Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary

Just to get that out of the way, in case there was any misunderstanding.

In 2001's "Blow," Johnny Depp took time out from his usual quirky, fantasy character portrayals ("Edward Scissorhands," "Sleepy Hollow," Willy Wonka, Captain Jack) to play a real-life character, a drug dealer. And not just any drug dealer but George Jung, one of the biggest cocaine dealers in U.S. history. Director Ted Demme ("Snitch," "A Decade Under the Influence") says on the disc's commentary track that he found Jung's innate charisma, as well as his story of rise and fall (as described in a book by Bruce Porter), so compelling he wanted to film it. Certainly, Demme makes a good stab at presenting the character, warts and all, and certainly Depp does his best to flesh out the character; but in the end we get a film about a rather despicable fellow, with whom it is hard to sympathize. Accordingly, it's hard to find any sympathy for the movie, either.

"Blow" is essentially a tale of the American Dream gone haywire. In 1942 George Jung (Depp) was born into a working-class family whose parents (played by Ray Liotta and Rachel Griffiths) were continuously fighting over finances. From his youth, George decided never to be without enough money.

In 1968, in his mid twenties, George moved from Massachusets to Southern California with an old friend, Tuna (Ethan Suplee), where they rented a small apartment on the beach. There George discovered a lifestyle foreign to him in the East. People were freer and easier and more laid back, and everyone smoked weed. Since everyone around him was getting stoned, George decided to get in on the action by selling pot, earning himself the nickname "Boston George"; and traffic boomed, thanks to his new business partner, Derek Foreal (Paul Reubens, of Pee-wee Herman fame), a local drug supplier.

One thing led to another, and George decided to expand to the East Coast, using his stewardess girlfriend, Barbara Buckley (Franka Potente), to transport the grass ("She's a stewardess; they don't check her bags"). But that wasn't enough. Seeing how well pot was selling, he decided to move up into cocaine, smuggling it into the country in huge quantities, first from Mexico and later from Colombia (as part of the Medellin Cartel). By the early 1980s, George Jung was importing nearly 85% of all the coke in the United States.

He was riding high (often literally) until things fell apart, as they usually do. He got busted time and again. His girlfriend died. He became a fugitive on the run. He wound up in prison several times. He met and married a new woman, Mirtha (Penelope Cruz), and the marriage turned into a nightmare. (Interestingly, MTV nominated Cruz for a "Breakthrough Female Performance" and the Razzie Awards nominated her for "Worst Actress of the Year.") When it appeared that George had everything, whatever could go wrong for him went wrong. And, yes, it's hard to argue he didn't deserve it.

Does the movie make us care? Not really, which is the movie's basic problem. How anybody presumably so smart as George Jung could have done so many stupid things, starting with his going into the drug business in the first place, is hard to fathom. The biggest dope dealer in the country is a dope? Well, according to the movie, he is essentially a really nice guy who made really dumb decisions and of whom everybody took advantage. He chose the wrong friends. He chose the wrong partners. He chose the wrong wife.

Yes, Depp is terrific in the pivotal role, investing a degree of humanity and humor in the character he plays. But there is always that lingering doubt in the back of our minds about why he is behaving the way he does, why he is always so trusting, why he ceaselessly goes after the wrong dream. Which ultimately undermines the movie's entertainment value and essentially turns it into little more than a historical curiosity.

I also had one other minor concern. For the first third or more of the movie, Demme treats Jung's life rather lightheartedly, making it more comic than serious. Then, as things turn bad for Jung, Demme treats the subject matter as a dramatic tragedy. I found the two conflicting tones a little disconcerting.

A Federal Court sentenced George Jung to prison until 2015.

On the commentary track, director Demme tells us that he and his fellow filmmakers tried to simulate the visual cinematic style of the various decades covered by the film. That's fine, but it means the look of the Blu-ray reproduction varies from moment to moment. Some of it looks faded, washed out, and pastel tinted; some of it looks bright, glossy, and overly contrasted; some of it looks dark and murky; some of it looks soft and fuzzy; and a good part of it looks sharp and clean. Take your pick.

The main thing is that it appears the disc's video transfer engineers attempted to capture the look of the original print as well as possible, using a dual-layer BD50 disc and a VC-1 codec to reproduce the movie's 2.40:1 ratio picture. A modicum of natural film grain gives the image some texture, but a few instances of moiré effects on my television seemed oddly out of place.

The disc's back cover says that the only available audio is Dolby Digital 5.1. Not so. The disc contains a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track as well as Dolby Digital. However, you'll have to choose the TrueHD from the menu when the movie starts because regular DD 5.1 is the default.

Like the picture quality, the audio varies, this time according to the music playing. Since most of the soundtrack contains dialogue, it's really only in the accompanying music that one notices much frequency expanse or dynamic impact, and the period music displays a range of differing characteristics. Beyond the musical ambience enhancement, the occasional surround effect, like an airplane flyover, comes across effectively.

It surprised me that Warners/New Line put so much effort into the extras. You'd think the film was a major Academy Award winner. But who can complain? The studio had the room on the disc, and they had the bonus items. Go for it.

First up, we get "Focus Points," where every time you see an icon while watching the movie, you press it to access details on the making of the film. Next, there is an audio commentary by director Ted Demme and George Jung, the latter, I guess, from prison. Then there are eight interviews with George Jung, done at Jung's prison, about sixteen minutes' worth. After that are two featurettes: "Lost Paradise: Cocaine's Impact on Colombia," twenty-four minutes, and "Addiction: Body and Soul," six minutes, the titles self-explanatory.

After those items we find a music video, "Push and Pull," with Nikki Costa, followed by a "Fact Track," a trivia subtitle track with direct access to additional features. Further, there's "Ted Demme's Production Diary," seventeen minutes in twelve parts; a theatrical trailer and a teaser trailer; ten deleted scenes totalling about twenty-eight minutes, with optional director commentary; and six character outtakes, nine minutes, wherein the actors (in character) reflect on Jung.

The extras wrap up with twenty-five scene selections and bookmarks; English as the only spoken language; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The package also includes a standard-definition digital copy of the movie compatible with iTunes and Windows Media devices.

Parting Shots:
"Blow" is a hard film to judge. On the one hand, one cannot deny that its characters are fascinating in their own way, and that Depp's performance is first-class. On the other hand, as I've said, it's hard to care about Depp's character, he's such a loser and he's caused so much damage to the American public. Just because Jung is charismatic doesn't mean we have to like him. The guy is a crook, a selfish drug dealer, a destroyer of lives, no matter how nice a guy he appears to be. Parts of his life may interest us; the whole may repulse us. In the end, it's not the kind of film I'd want to watch again.


Film Value